By Avery Minnelli
[Image Description: Nine protesters listen and hold signs at a rally outside Mural Arts Philadelphia to demand removal of the Rizzo mural, and eight police officers watch from across the street, February 6, 2018.]
In the aftermath of the tragic murder of Heather Heyer during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as the toppling of outdated statues in Durham, North Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee, and other communities, a country-wide dialogue erupted about whether racist monuments have a place in our society.
This conversation has already been going on in Philadelphia, where a campaign to take down the Frank Rizzo statue was launched over a year ago. Frank Rizzo, former “law and order” mayor and police chief of Philadelphia, used local law enforcement to crack down on Black, LGBTQ+, and leftist communities with brute force.
Not only is there a statue commemorating the former mayor, but there is also a Rizzo mural in the Italian market on 9th Street in the Bella Vista neighborhood. The mural, painted in 1995 by Diane Keller, was commissioned and maintained by Mural Arts Philadelphia, a public art program that started in 1984.
The maintenance of the Rizzo statue seems to run contrary to the Mural Arts mission statement, which states that their “work is created in service of a larger movement that values equity, fairness and progress across all of society.” For much of Philadelphia, especially working-class Black neighborhoods, Frank Rizzo’s legacy was the opposite. Furthermore, that Mural Arts maintains a tribute to a figure with Rizzo’s legacy may call into question their professed commitment to progress.
The Rizzo mural was spray painted back in August in an act of protest against the racist figure. The person arrested for allegedly being one of several who splattered paint over the mural and wrote slogans against police brutality on it is facing up to 16 years in prison. Instead of removing the mural, Mural Arts paid to have it repaired and told police how much it cost, Joan Reilly, Chief Operating Officer of Mural Arts, said in an interview with The Philadelphia Partisan. Because a representative of Mural Arts testified at the preliminary hearing that the damage to the mural cost in excess of $5,000, the defendant’s two charges were graded as felonies instead of misdemeanors or summary offenses.
Reilly told reporters that she would look into requesting clemency for the defendant. “Do I think this person serving time in prison for that is a good outcome?” she said. “I do not.”
Reilly explained that Mural Arts will make a decision by the end of March as to whether or not to keep the mural up, although she expressed that they should have “addressed it sooner.” Reilly made clear that this decision was not a “referendum,” but rather the decision of Mural Arts with input from “Bella Vista Neighbors [Association], the 9th Street Market, the building owner” and “some faith-based institutions.”
Bella Vista, however, is a largely Italian-American neighborhood. Rizzo, being Italian-American himself, tended to enjoy much higher approval in Italian neighborhoods in South Philly than in the Black neighborhoods in West and North Philly which were the targets of his “anti-crime” campaigns. The survey does not take into account the views of residents from various nationalities and neighborhoods, as the Italian Market is a popular destination for both tourists and residents from other neighborhoods.
However, as Joan Reilly stated, Mural Arts is not looking to call a referendum, but rather to make the decision for themselves informed by public opinion. We can only hope that Mural Arts will make the right choice and replace the mural with something more positive than a symbol of racism and hatred.
Additional reporting by Suzy Subways.
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